The political conventional wisdom has already concluded that Democrats will suffer major losses in November midterm elections. Indeed, if the election were held today, that might be true. There have been very few midterms in modern political history where the party that holds the White House has not lost a lot of seats in the first midterm after its President first took office.
But there are six months and a great deal that Democrats can do to succeed this fall.
Rule #1: Keep our eyes on the prize. Democrats have four goals in the coming midterms that should define our allocation of financial and political resources. In descending order of importance they are:
- Maintain control of both houses of Congress. Loss of control of one of the two houses would be a catastrophic blow to achieving a transformative progressive political agenda.
At the same time, it would be enormously useful if we made examples of several Members who abandoned that agenda - especially those that represent safe Democratic seats. Several come to mind where the filing deadline for the Democratic primary has not yet passed. And as Niccolo Machiavelli noted, you don't have to punish all of your enemies - just hang one in the public square.
The other is Florida's heavily Cuban 25th District that has been dominated by Republicans but is trending more Democratic. Joe Garcia, who did well there last cycle against an incumbent, is considering a run for what is now an open seat. A victory there would help Democrats continue to woo young Cuban Americans away from their traditional Republican roots.
Rule #2: Midterm elections are all about turnout. In 1994 Democrats did not lose control of Congress because of a huge swing among persuadable voters. We lost because Republican voters turned out, and ours stayed at home.
That means two things.
- First, for the next six months we have to be all about inspiring the Democratic base. Of course victory in legislative battles is itself enormously inspiring. The polling shows that the health care reform victory caused the level of "intensity" among Democratic voters to pull even with Republicans. We have to continue winning. And we have to continue to draw clear distinctions between our positions and those of the Republicans - particularly on issues where we have the high political ground, such as holding the big Wall Street Banks accountable. For immigrant voters - and especially Latinos - we have to deliver on fixing the broken immigration system.
Rule #3: We can't afford to allow the Republicans to make the midterms a referendum on Democratic performance. It must be framed as a choice between the failed Republican policies of the past and the Democratic program to lay a foundation for sustained, widely-shared economic growth.
Bush and the Republicans created an economic disaster in America. It will take a long time to clean that mess up. We must frame every discussion in terms of the choice between the failed policies that got us here, and our policies for the future.
That means two things:
- First, we have to deliver. Until last week, the Republican hoped their winning narrative would be that Democrats can't deliver - that Washington is gridlocked. Passage of health care and student loan reform helped closed the book on that story. But we have to continue delivering - not just talking.
Rule #4: We have to frame the debate in clear populist terms -- about who is on your side. By Election Day people will still be unhappy. If we don't focus that anger on the people who really caused this economic disaster, they will blame Democrats, who are in charge of the Government.
The narrative is very simple. And it has the enormous advantage of being 100% true. The recklessness of the big Wall Street Banks and their Republican allies cost seven million Americans their jobs. Democrats want to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable and throw out the Republican policies that put the interests of the Banks and other special interests like health insurance companies ahead of the public interest.
It will be great if we can point to new laws to hold the big Wall Street Banks accountable. But it is critical that we draw a clear distinction between our positions and the interests of Wall Street. Wall Street - and the overgrown financial sector in general - should always be the chief villain in our political narrative.
Rule #5: The outcome of midterm elections are hugely dependent on the popularity of the President. History shows that whether Members of Congress vote with him or not, his popularity impacts the ambient level of their support. That means that Members of Congress have an enormous personal political interest in passing his agenda. And many need to remember that if the political tide goes out, it is those in the shallowest political water who will be left aground.
Rule #6: In midterm elections, whichever party nationalizes the contest almost always wins. In 2002, the Democrats made the giant mistake of trying to "localize" the midterms -- to focus on local issues -- while Republicans generated a national narrative. Republicans expanded their margins in the House and re-took control of the Senate. A national narrative is key to victory.
Rule #7: No flip-flops. But that doesn't mean that the qualities of individual candidates aren't important. Democratic Members of Congress need to remember the story of John Kerry's Presidential campaign. Swing voters agreed with Kerry on the issues. But the Republicans convinced them (incorrectly) that he was a "flip-flopper" -- that he had "voted for it before he voted against it" -- that he didn't have a moral center. Commitment is an independent variable in politics and it is especially important to swing voters -- who by definition are not strongly wedded to partisan positions. When people say they hate "typical politicians" they mean they hate candidates who put a finger in the air to test the political winds before they tell you where they stand. They want public officials who have core beliefs and stand up for them.
That's why it was so stupid for some Democrats who had voted for the health care reform bill in the first House vote last year to vote against it this time. Their new vote won't matter to hardcore "Obamacare" haters - the Republicans will say they voted for it anyway. But for swing voters their flip-flop is disastrous. The Republicans will run ad after ad reminding swings that Congressman X is a flip-flopper. And of course - in the bargain - their vote served to demobilize their base and will ultimately depress Democratic turnout. Not so smart.
Rule #8: Stay on the offensive. Throughout the next six months, Democrats must stay on offense. We must go after Republicans for the failed policies of the past that led to the recession. We must stay on the offense campaigning for our solutions. They will obstruct and do everything they can to create diversion (e.g. death panels) and generate fear. We can't take their bait.
Rule #9: Keep winning. People vote for - and turn out for - winners not losers. The bandwagon is also a critical independent variable. Winning, by itself, increases candidate favorability. The progressive bandwagon is now out of the mud and rolling again. We can't let up. We have to press our advantage to win on financial reform, fixing the broken immigration system, clean energy and jobs - as well as appointments and remaking education reform. Process won't matter at all to voters. Even the "process" debates of the last few weeks have already begun to fade. No one cares about how something is done... only that it is done and how it affects them.
Rule #10: It's the economy, stupid. In the end the most important variable in affecting the midterm elections will be people's personal perception of whether the economy is improving for them and their families. The Administration and Congress must focus like a laser on creating jobs - even at the expense of higher short-term federal deficits. And voters need to see Democrats fighting for jobs with every ounce of their energy.
Everything that can be done, should be done, but small-ball "jobs" initiatives are not likely to be enough. America needs another major signature jobs initiative like Congressman George Miller's proposal to directly create a million additional jobs.
A major jobs initiative is not only good politics - it is absolutely good economics. The only way to kickstart broadly-shared economic prosperity is to assure that there are enough jobs that pay a good living wage. "Top-down" simply won't work.
A lot of political water will flow under the bridge between now and November 2nd. In large measure the outcome of the midterm elections is in our hands. If Democrats do what we need to do, there is no question that we have the ability to achieve our goals and set the stage for continued progressive success in the two years leading up to the Presidential election in 2012.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com.
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